Monday, 21 February 2011

Learning technologies for the Hydrographic Academy: thoughts on initial approaches

I thought it would be useful to talk about my thoughts and considerations for the newly formed Hydrographic Academy (brain child and project lead of Dr Richard Thain from BRNC Dartmouth/Plymouth University and collaborative partners from the Royal Navy, CENORE and Fugro). Learning technologists provide advice and guidance on approaches to any given technology, be it a simple portable device or a complete on-line/offline learning environment. What is tricky about the Hydrographic Academy is that the student base is very likely to be varied and distributed throughout the globe. These are the sort of comments I'm picking up on from the steering group meetings, mainly from our industrial partner and Royal Navy. Our learner base is very much likely to be those already working in some form of hydrographic surveying, therefore they are likely to be on board ship and away from appropriate internet connections. Granted, there is satellite broadband systems on their ships, but these can become strained (and availability very limited), especially when their systems are being used to send back important surveying data.

The solution to me seems to be very much to create an offline learning environment (Possibly a bespoke HTML interface as I see this as having greatest flexibility and longevity), we can utilise all the electronic learning goodies, but without the need to be constantly connected. Granted with this comes an increased burden on content development, as content cannot be continuously uploaded or updated to an internet based learning environment, like some would probably expect. For this to work properly, each potential module needs to be complete when leaving the University (e.g. DVD). It also must contain everything that is required for the course, so as not disadvantage those without a usable internet connection.

Here are a few considerations:
  • Internet connection speed
  • Access to internet
  • Access to PC
  • Work from home or while at sea
  • access to email
  • location and ability to send out digital content (e.g. DVD)
  • a lack of human interactivity (isolation)
  • ability to upload coursework (from time to time)
  • Tutoring
  • Will existing University administration fit with a modular approach?
  • Course construction
  • Who will be the content developers?
To elaborate on the above. It actually gets to a point that requirements dictate we should not rule out completely or consider it unreasonable for us to expect students to have access to 'some form of usable internet connection during the course' (particularly for tutoring), even if speeds are very slow for the majority of the time. However, what this does mean is that more commonly used technologies, the simple things, such as streaming video or interactive content on-line becomes a real issue, these can actually become a barrier to learning, rather than a help!

Other institutions such as Open University or the Robert Gordon utilise either a combination of pre-packaged or online content or both. With this brings the advantages of progressive release of content. However, online content for the Hydrographic Academy needs to be cut back for it to work for their usergroup.

Exceptions have to be made, particularly where it involves submission of marked coursework. Postal costs across the globe and the uncertainty of delivery (dependant on country) means that digital is probably the most reliable candidate (we will have to see from future trials if this is effective on not!) Perhaps using Plymouth University's existing system of SCOLAR, as I discuss previously, with its ability to set deadlines and allow students to submit coursework in an 'official' capacity, could be a solution. There is no point reinventing the wheel.

What about student motivation? It's bound to be lonely studying on a ship form time to time, and any learning technologist worth their salt has to consider the very real tendency for students to get side tracked (and tutoring...!) . Therefore to encourage student interaction and debate, there has to be some form of discussion group or forum available, which also allows them to feel a part of the University. Initial thoughts are to housed these again within the Tulip module area (Plymouth University's learning environment), with the premise that student would benefit from accessing this whenever a decent broadband connection or equivalent is available. Of course there is nothing wrong with emails, so something may have to be devised for this to work effectively! I reiterate, that coursework has to be all offline for this to be effective...

Administration concerns will be discuss in later posts, however, the real issue is the content development and how best for this to be achieved. Fugro have already kindly offered Mohive an elearning based learning system, which allows a considerable amount of formative testing and learning materials to be housed. Mohive is Flash based so with this comes concerns for some mobile devices ability to use these. The final solution may be that a decent laptop is the minimum so as to ensure students can read and interact appropriately.

What about the Human touch? Considering that these students will be missing out on lectures, the obvious approach is to package a structured lecture system in some form of vodcast/podcast using PowerPoint 2010's features, as I described back in November 2010. For me this approach leads itself well to academic empowerment and ownership, with the ability to use existing content. Equally, students get to hear and see simultaneously what their tutors are describing, something very important for their overall learning experience.

One thing is for sure, this is not going to be quick fix. There is a majority of 'potential learning technology users', that think of e-learning as a simple case of throwing a few slides and PDFs onto an intranet. This may lend itself well to campus based students, but we have to remember this does not suit all situations; consider this, how can we ensure the study plan happens as expected if content is just thrown onto the interface and they are 2000 miles away onboard a ship? In this situation, initial setup can take longer, with the biggest part being content development, and integrating this into different digital environments appropriately. The advantages come later, when modules are complete, and we find maintenance is very low. If we as Learning Technologists have done our jobs properly, academics should be able to make content changes themselves more rapidly (this is where the expectations of 'quick fix' actually happens). Now no longer having to worry about the content, tutors can concentrate on ensuring their students are happy in their studies.

Im currently only assigned 1.25 days a week on this project, so I have to ensure my work is extremely focused! Interesting times ahead. Time to start working on the user interface, all good fun with HTML. Need to consider how it will look graphically too!

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